Going Nuts for Chestnuts

In Japan, the changing seasons permeate many aspects of people’s lives. There are different festivals, different places to go sightseeing, and most impressively, different flavors of food. Food of all kinds change with the seasons, from traditional dishes to convenience store candies. And the archetypal flavor of fall? Chestnut!

You’d be forgiven for thinking that chestnuts are only a winter-time Christmas-y snack. After all, many Americans’ only image of the nut is either roasting it over an open fire, or buying from a street vendor sometime in December. But chestnuts (or kuri) are so much more in Japan, and as the weather gets cooler, you’ll start seeing them everywhere.

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Of course, you can buy plain chestnuts in any grocery store. Daiso, a well-known 100 yen store, actually sells cooked chestnuts in vacuum sealed bags, so you can take them anywhere and they won’t go bad. You’ll probably also see them sold by street vendors, just like in America, although the style of roasting is a little different. The chestnuts, while in the shell, are mixed with tiny pebbles in a large pot. The pot is put over flame, which warms it and the pebbles, and the chestnuts are evenly cooked from all sides.

There are several traditional desserts that utilize chestnut in more or less their original form. Roasted or boiled chestnuts are sometimes added to rich dishes, and there are several methods of cooking the peeled chestnuts in sugar and candying them. One of these produces kuri no kanroni, a sugar syrup and chopped chestnut mixture that makes an appearance in  New Year’s osechi food.

From there, the chestnut is broken down a bit more into wagashi, traditional Japanese sweets. Some are like firm jelly with bits of chestnut inside, or balls of bean paste containing a whole nut, all wrapped up in mochi. There are so many different variations, which are different from place to place! Obuse, in Nagano prefecture, is particularly famous for its chestnut wagashi. They’ve been growing the nuts for over 600 years, so you know they’re good.

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Kuri kinton, shaped sweet chestnut paste

But creating desserts with chestnuts isn’t a practice lost to tradition. The French mont blac, a confection that looks like a pile of noodles made of ground chestnuts and cream, is extremely popular in Japan. In fact, you can now find it in different flavors all year long.

Tons of modern snack companies also incorporate the autumnal chestnut during certain times of year, including Nestle. Among the many unique flavors of Kit-Kat made for Japan is the aki-kuri (fall chestnut) variety. Even the concept of fall itself seems to pair well with chocolate! Many Japan-only brands of cookies, cakes, and candies also use the flavor.

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An aki-kuri Kit-Kat

And what is that flavor? Although it can change depending on the method of preparation, chestnut in snacks generally tastes warm, nutty, and a little bit like coffee. They aren’t naturally sweet, but any bitterness is drowned out by the cream, chocolate, or sugar that is usually added in these snacks.

And it doesn’t stop at snacks—you can also find drinks flavored with chestnut in the fall months. In 2015, Starbucks Japan offered for the first time a drink called “Roast Nutty Chestnut Latte,” which was available throughout September. In 2016, Kirin created a variety of its well-loved Afternoon Tea that mixed their familiar milk tea with mont blanc. This drink was sold in a specially crafted bottle with a wide neck, apparently for better appreciation of its complicated aroma.

Interested in tracking down some sweet chestnut desserts yourself? Beverages come and go, but see what you can find at your local (Japanese) Starbucks and look closely at the next heated vending machine you come across. Luckily, even if the trends change, traditional chestnut wagashi aren’t going anywhere. You might even find some at your favorite convenience store!

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